All Blacks and Lions play out an epic, creating a drawn series for the ages

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    The New Zealand All Blacks (15) and British and Irish Lions (15) played out a magnificent drawn Test at Eden Park to conclude one of the great rugby series.

    The rugby played by both teams in all three Tests, despite the dire conditions in the first two, was of a level of skill, intensity and general game management on defence and attack that was several levels above that achieved by any team in Rugby World Cup 2015.

    Warren Gatland’s 2017 Lions side will forever be linked now with the 1971 Lions team that won a series in New Zealand and the 1974 Lions side that won a series in South Africa as part of a trinity of the greatest Lions sides.

    All the defeatist talk before and during the tour of New Zealand leading up to the first Test at Eden Park has been totally smashed. Amazingly, it was the British rugby writers who were at the forefront of the dire predictions that future tours were in doubt because of the impossibility of professional players performing adequately on a longish overseas tour after a tough season in their home competitions.

    In actual fact, the Lions got better as the tour went on. The quality of the rugby they played at Eden Park was far superior to any of the rugby the team played up to and including the first Test.

    Professional rugby with its longer and tougher club season and the imperative for players from different countries to fit into a local squad has helped the Lions project far more than having any major detrimental effects.

    One of the problems facing Lions sides in the past was somehow convincing players from the four nations to play together as a team, and somehow invest the sort of passion they had for their national team into their Lions performances.

    Coach Gatland discussed this matter before the final Test when he pointed out that one of the psychological problems facing Lions players was how to get them to invest totally, physically and mentally, in a team that only plays every four years.

    After the final Eden Park Test, Gatland explained, the players went back to their clubs and national sides. Most of them would never play for the Lions again.

    But somehow the players had to convince themselves that playing for the Lions represented the summit of their careers, rather than being a sort of one-off honour that lacked the emotional resonance of, say, playing for their nation.

    In the past, this ambivalence between reconciling the manufactured honour of playing for the Lions with the real passion for representing their nation has created problems for the Lions.

    The Welsh players could not get on with the English players. The English players could not get on with any of the other players. And, as a consequence, on the very long tours of the past, there would be splits the size of the Grand Canyon dividing various factions on the teams.

    Irish players, even the ones who weren’t up to Test standard, were often appointed captain because they generally had a geniality that somehow could cover up the nationalist inclinations of some of the other players.

    Even in the professional era, this difficulty of getting the players from the four nations to come together in a united team created havoc in the playing ranks.

    Warren Gatland British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/David Rowland)

    Graham Henry’s 2001 Lions was splintered by dissident English players mainly. Sir Clive Woodward’s 2005 Lions was a disaster of split allegiances starting from the coach downwards.

    Gatland’s skill in creating a real team from a diverse squad of players was epitomised at Eden Park on Saturday night by Johnny Sexton, one of the Lions stars on the tour, refusing to go off initially after he twisted his ankle and playing on with cleverness, high skills and pace with what seemed like metres of white tape around his boots.

    Coach Gatland made the point before the final Test that this manufactured nature of the Lions did have some benefits. There was “no pressure” on the players as there was for the All Blacks, he argued.

    The statistics of the Test provide a fair indication of just close and intense play was:

    New Zealand Lions
    98 Tackles 94
    103 Carries 109
    427 Metres Gained 337
    6 Clear Breaks 1
    7 Offloads 1
    21 Turnovers Conceded 17
    9 Penalties 5
    74/76 Rucks won 82/83
    51% Possession 49%
    56% Territory 44%

    The All Blacks had many chances to score tries, especially in the first half, and failed to take most of them. They spent six minutes inside the Lions’ 22 in this first half, a territorial domination that should have allowed the home side to be so fat in front as to close out the result after 40 minutes.

    The Lions’ rush defence, however, was intense and accurate in general and forced a couple of crucial errors.

    The point here is that the rush defence is a high risk and high reward tactic, a bit like the offside trap in football. For the Lions, it paid off in that the All Blacks, despite some sensational attacking rugby, were kept to scoring only two tries.

    But it seems to me that it’s doubtful whether a single British or Irish side would have had the personnel that the Lions had to conduct this high-risk strategy against, say, the All Blacks during a Rugby World Cup tournament.

    Conor Murray British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

    (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

    This Lions team, to their credit, became a special side.

    One of the reasons why this series will be regarded so highly is that it will be some time, in my opinion, before another Lions side will have such a constellation of stars in the backs and forwards: Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell (especially his dead-eye goal kicking), Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray (the player of the series?), Taupule Faletau, Sean O’Brien, Maro Itoje (destined to be England’s new Martin Johnson), and Mako Vunipola.

    All the pressure, then, was on the All Blacks.

    From the travelling British rugby media, we had the usual nonsense about the “cheating” All Blacks. And there was nonsensical commentary from a 2001 Lions trouble-maker Austin Healy about how the All Blacks would be revealed once more as “chokers.”

    Winning three Rugby World Cup tournaments, including the last two in succession, apparently is a sign of a perpetual choking weakness!

    On the other side of the battle was the over-weening superiority complex of the New Zealand rugby media.

    The New Zealand Herald, not content with its stupid Gatland The Clown cartoon, ran a breakout section on the morning of the Test with its six experts not only predicting an All Blacks victory but nominating the scoreline, as well.

    Two of the experts predicted over 30s by the All Blacks, three of them predicted the All Blacks scoring more that 20 points and only one, Campbell Burnes, coming anywhere near the final result with a predicted 19–15 victory.

    We get now to The Incident of the series, as infamous now for New Zealanders (and rightly so) as the ‘Deans Try’ that was not awarded to the All Blacks in their losing Test at Cardiff Arms Park against Wales on their 1905-06 tour of the United Kingdom and France.

    With about two minutes of play left in the Test and the scores locked at 15–15, Beauden Barrett kicked off with a short jab that lofted the ball just over the 10m mark.

    You have to give credit to the All Blacks for this enterprising re-start. If Liam Williams had caught the ball, rather than knocking it forward, the Lions would have been in a prime position to force a long-range penalty to win the match, given that Elliot Daly just after half-time had banged over a 55m shot from inside his own half.

    Under pressure from a challenge in the air from Kieran Read, Williams spilled the ball forward.

    It was caught in an offside position by the replacement Lions hooker, Ken Owens.

    Owens clearly believed he had made a mistake because he gave himself up by giving away the ball.

    Referee Romain Poite now made three decisions.

    The first, to penalise the Lions for offside playing of the ball, that was correct.

    The second, to blow up play, even though the All Blacks were storming through with Anton Lienert-Brown on the ball and in the process of scoring a try or setting up the scoring of a try, that was not a correct decision.

    Then, after an intervention by the Lions captain Sam Warburton, Poite overruled his initial decision of a penalty and changed it to an accidental offside and a scrum feed to the All Blacks rather than a kickable (perhaps) penalty to them.

    All Blacks British and Irish Lions Romain Poite Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/ David Rowland)

    Warren Gatland’s explanation why this over-ruling was justified was just as laughable as the clown’s red nose he wore to the media conference after the Test: “I thought it was a penalty to us. I thought Kieran Read – I didn’t think he had any chance of getting his hand on that – that was my initial thought. That he hit a player in the air.

    “I can understand that he is saying he is competing for that, and the ball has come (down) and landed in Ken Owens’ arms. In fairness to the man next to me (Lions captain Sam Warburton) he has been quite smart and astute and been able to talk the referee from a penalty into an accidental offside.”

    If you believe this nonsense, you will believe anything.

    What is the purpose of having the “accidental offside” rule if every incident like the Owens offside is deemed to be “accidental”?

    When Kieran Read questioned Poite’s decision to overrule his first decision, Poite told him that the ball had touched Owens “accidentally.”

    Read told him correctly that Owens had “caught” the ball. This is what actually happened.

    So Poite made his call based on a factual matter that he got wrong.

    New Zealand rugby writer Marc Hinton was spot-on with this analysis: “How could Poite change his decision when the video replay clearly showed replacement hooker Ken Owens had been in front of Liam Williams when he killed the ball forward from the kick-off? But he did.

    “It was as if he decided he did not want this match to end on that note, after Lions superboot Owen Farrell had drilled his second 48-metre penalty to level the scores.”

    The law that Poite sort of ruled on or against is this: “When a player knocks-on and an offside teammate next plays the ball, the offside player is liable to a sanction if the player prevents an opponent from gaining an advantage.” The sanction, in this case, is a penalty.

    It is hard to disagree with Hinton that Poite made the wrong decision in overturning his original and correct decision to award a penalty against the Lions.

    The mistake was compounded with the intervention of the assistant referee Jerome Garces who seemed to suggest to Poite, after he had confirmed his original decision after going to the TMO to watch the video of the incident, that he should overrule his original decision.

    This intervention represents a terrible mistake by Garces and by Poite. The TMO system should not be used to check on matters like accidental or non-accidental offside.

    When the TMO review confirmed (again correctly) that Read had contested legally for the ball in the air, the original penalty had to stand.

    Poite and Garces must have known this.

    The All Blacks, unlike the Lions who now go into a four-year recess before their tour of South Africa, are on the path to rebuilding a new team to try to win a third successive Rugby World Cup tournament. As the phrase goes, they are a work in progress.

    All Blacks British and Irish Lions Rugby Union 2017

    (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

    They played all the series against the Lions without Dane Coles and two Tests without Ben Smith, two of the stalwarts of the latest edition of the All Blacks.

    At Eden Park, they started two players, Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape, who are going to be important players in the Rugby World Cup 2019 squad.

    It would not surprise me if Jordie Barrett is kept at fullback for The Rugby Championship Tests, even when Ben Smith comes back into the starting side in the winger/fullback role played by Israel Dagg.

    Barrett’s aerial skills and running game complement the play of his brother Beauden. He is also a better goal-kicker than his brother and could take over the goal-kicking duties from the erratic Beauden.

    The first shot at goal in the final Test by Beauden Barrett was the sort of shank that most of us have perpetrated on the first tee of a difficult course as nervous golfers.

    Beauden Barrett, it seems to me, is one of those dynamic players, Jeff Wilson was another one, whose erratic goal-kicking sometimes inhibits his uninhibited, free-running game.

    Handing over the kicking duties to someone else would allow Beauden Barrett to play with the sort of brilliant freedom and expressiveness that marked Jeff Wilson’s play when he was freed of the psychological burden of having to kick winning goals.

    New Zealand journalists, in the main, were convinced that Beauden Barrett would have kicked the winning goal if referee Romain Poite had kept to his original and correct decision to award a penalty against Ken Owens.

    I am not so sure.

    I can’t remember a clutch kick at goal that Beauden Barrett was booted over.

    We will never know whether the goal would have been kicked. But what was seems clear to me is that Steve Hansen is on track to putting together a formidable All Blacks side for this year and going into the Rugby World Cup 2019 tournament.

    The bottom line is this. No other national side in world rugby, aside from the All Blacks, could have come close to defeating the Lions at Eden Park on Saturday night.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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